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Hail Luo Ping! 18th Century Visionary Painter And Poet

Luo Ping, Landscapes, Flowers and Birds: Narcissus, ink on paper, 1780, detail, Freer Gallery Of Art, Washington

Chinese art

Hail Luo Ping! 18th Century Visionary Painter And Poet

Luo Ping, Freud’s Godfather, proclaims, ‘kill or be killed’ … but of course Luo Ping’s subtler than this, he only suggests what’s in his ‘unconscious’ mind.

Freud uncovered our powerful unconscious instincts about: life and death; love and hate; sex and survival. Luo Ping feels his way towards these human instincts and desires from another direction – a Buddhist’s reflections on death, desire, reincarnation, ghosts, sorrow, and connections to our deeper selves.

Luo Ping is an extraordinary man to see within himself like one the of the symbolists of the 19th-century or modernists in the 20th-century. An 18th-century Chinese painter who depicts the ‘unconscious’ is a very unusual artist indeed.

Luo Ping painter Jin Nong, Figures and Landscapes, after Poems, 1759, Palace Museum, Beijing

Luo Ping, one of twelve leaves from “Figures and Landscapes” after Poems by Jin Nong, ink and color on paper, 1759, Palace Museum, Beijing

What influences make him so different?

In his book called, Record of My Beliefs, Luo Ping reveals much information about what he’s learned over his life as an artist including descriptions of: a cosmology of this world, heaven and hell, demons, ghosts, goblins, and other ghoulish entities; transmigration; the rare blessing of being born in a human body; the similar roots of Confucian and Buddhist belief; and the importance of Chan Buddhist masters in the lives of Song-Dynasty Confucians. He devotes many pages to specific Buddhist tenets, such as karmic supererogation, right conduct, confession, and practices stemming from a number of different traditions: the contemplation of phrases in Chan riddles, the use of esoteric phrases without clear meaning, and Pure Land-style repetition of the Buddha’s name.

He lives during the heady days when Yangzhou is a centre of culture and learning in the middle of the 18th-century. This is where he starts his journey as one of the most interesting Chinese artists of his time.

Unfortunately, Luo Ping has a rough start and is orphaned when he’s only one year old. Many years later in 1775, when he’s age forty-two, he describes how he still feels about this experience.

Luo Ping painter

Luo Ping, Portrait of Mr. Bamboo Hat, ink on paper, date unknown, Shanghai Museum

He that was born on the day of man,

Is a pitiable creature.

Standing at the foot of the Golden Ox Mountain tears rolled down my face.

Back and forth, for three thousand miles from south to north I hasten.

For twenty years I have seen my parents’ grave in my dreams.

Who knows that, when not even a year old, I lost my father?

I sigh, harboring lifelong sorrow.

In this life I can only envy those who may delight and honor their parents.

In a life to come, so I hope, I am destined to remain at their side.

Bereavement for Luo Ping is a never endings heartache.

His early social identity seems to have derived from his accomplishments as a poet which caught the attention of the literati in Yangzhou where he lived and married and raised his family. He soon finds a mentor, Jin Nong, and turns to painting traditional literati subjects in his own unique style.

These two men, one seventy the other in his twenties, are both itinerant Buddhists and feel they are karmically connected. Jin calls himself the Youngest Buddhist Monk and Luo Ping calls himself the Monk of the Temple of Flowers. This mystical union finds its way into several portraits of Jin by his protégé. One of the most striking, called, Portrait of Mr. Dongxin, is of Jin as a luohan.

Luohan are protectors of the dharma, disciples of Buddha, ageless adepts who refuse nirvana to stay in the world and embody the virtues of the Three Harmonies, a combination of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Luo Ping painter

Luo Ping, Portrait of Mr. Dongxin, ink and color on paper, 1762-63, Zhejiang Provincial Museum, Hangzhou

In Luo’s Portrait of Mr. Dongxin, his master Jin Nong is shown in the disguise of a luohan called Nandimitra. His bald dome clearly identifies him as he contemplates a Himalayan-style text he’s trying to decipher. He twists the thin hairs of his beard and clearly represents the posture and importance of the sage-protectors who cloistered themselves in small cottages hidden away in remote mountains.

This portrait shows Jin Nong as someone both from this world and another distant world. These overlaps in Luo Ping’s portraiture of his mentor allow us an insight into the double life of his master blurring the lines between the seen and unseen. Luo Ping also believes himself to be the reincarnation of another luohan, a Buddhist monk of the Temple of Flowers, something he says was revealed to him in a dream. He gives much importance to what he sees in dreams, images that straddle the conscious and the unconscious.

Luo Ping, Ghost Amusement Scroll, 1766, Private collection Luo Ping painter

Luo Ping, painting from the handscroll “Ghost Amusement”, ink on paper, ca. 1766, private collection

One of Luo Ping’s most famous paintings called Ghost Amusement, bring us into the dream world via a series of eight different size panels of ghost-like creatures such as imps being chased by a fat-head with short arms and claw-like hands; worried looking ghosts with eyes staring at subtle terrors we can only imagine; a tall, emaciated ghost looking lost with thin twisted lips and vacant eyes, long green arms and legs disappearing into a murky cloud nearly covering him from head to foot. These paintings are joined together in a long scroll. Luo Ping painted them to illustrate ghost stories that were in vogue at the time. He describes them in a poem he wrote suggesting he didn’t just imagine them but saw them as clearly as he could see real people.

A dim autumn room with but a single lamp;

From the bookcase a famished rat falls to the ground.

Presumptuous ghosts, as though no else were there,

Come sniggering in groups of three or four.

It’s not only my discerning eyesight surely

Luo Ping, Walking a Crane in a Bamboo Grove, one of twelve leaves from “Figures and Landscapes” after Poems by Jin Nong, 1759, Palace Museum, Beijing

That perversely makes me see this ‘ghostly realm.’

Some have necks twisted and tall;

Some have bodies humpbacked and squat.

Some expose teeth like melon seeds.

Some have fingers large as thighs;

The whole yard grows danker as the wind picks up

and rushes headlong to the far porches.

Stealthily I follow the hidden traces;

the falling leaves patter down like rain.

I turn back, feeling terror arise,

Hairs stand on end upon my chilled gooseflesh.

So I sigh for that non-believer Ruan Zhan

Who in the end was insulted by a ghost.

Whether you choose ‘to listen in a frivolous way’ is up to you:

What I am saying is not frivolous.

Luo Ping, ‘Telling Ghost Stories at a Gathering in Huang Shoushi’s Studio on an Autumn’s Night’

Luo Ping, Plum Blossoms Reflected in Water, one of the leaves from “Plum Blossoms in Ink and Colour”, 1772, Palace Museum, Beijing

The Ghost Amusement Scroll makes him famous and instantly identifiable wherever he goes. They’re painted after Jin Nong’s death. Since business turns for the worse in Yangzhou, Luo Ping decides to use his reputation and make a new start in Beijing where business is flourishing and where creative talent is being attracted from around the world. Luo Ping’s fame, after painting his Ghost Amusement Scroll, quickly establishes him with many important intellectuals and sophisticated members of high society there.

This begins his back and forth sojourns from Beijing to Yangzhou for the next two decades. He establishes himself in Beijing then lives and works with his beloved family for several years in Yangzhou, with side trips to other places. Back in Beijing he learns his beloved wife has died, age forty-seven, in 1779.  He’s heartbroken. After arranging the funeral, he composes a poem to express his sorrow for being unable to return and be with her at the time of her death.

Your death voids any principle of life;

My departure was [to be followed] by my return.

I wanted to return, but I could not;

Had I returned, you would not have known.

His wife, Fang Wangyi, who he married when was nineteen, is from an illustrious cultured family in Yangzhou. She paints and writes poems and is well known there. Her loss causes Luo Ping deep bereavement to the end of his life. After she dies he slowly turns inward from the world and in the last years, he lives in a monastery as a pauper with nothing but her memories, lost in a world of ghosts from the past.

Luo Ping, Drinking in the Bamboo Garden, ink and color on paper, 1772, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Luo Ping, Drinking in the Bamboo Garden, ink and color on paper, 1772, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

She gives him three children who become artists also. The family’s called the Luo Family Plum School since they all paint genre paintings of plum blossoms at their family studio in Yangzhou.

On his first sojourn to Beijing Luo focuses on tradition-bound landscapes and plum paintings very similar to Jin Nong’s genre style. ‘Looking at Luo was just like seeing Jin come back to life.’ His painting called, In Search of Plum Blossoms shows the delicate brush strokes he mastered over the years working with his beloved master Jin Nong.

After many busy years painting and working with intellectuals in both cities, Luo Ping settles in Beijing for his last eight years. He stays in close contact with his son who operates the family studio in Yangzhou. His reputation in Beijing is that of a famous painter with side occupations as a specialized copyist and art expert.  In 1789, ten years after his wife’s death, he accepts a position as the director of an orphanage that reminds him of the loss of his own parents and creates a great sadness in his heart from his memories of their loss.

Luo Ping, painting from handscroll "Ghost Amusement", ink on paper, ca. 1766, private collection

Luo Ping, painting from the handscroll “Ghost Amusement”, ink on paper, ca. 1766, private collection

During this time his paintings begin to show more and more individuality. He signals the emergence of a new kind of artist, who counts on his own ability using his ‘ten fingers’ to make visible the imagery of his own mind. His late paintings, Su Shi and the Two Miao or The Sleeping Monk depict this kind of personal take on the world around him. The subjects are ambiguous, the thinly layered washes present a crystalline atmosphere.

In the last years, he slowly withdraws into a personal world of private memories and visionary encounters. Ghost apparitions became so frequent now they haunt him in broad daylight. After completing his treatise, Record of My Beliefs, in 1791 Luo begins living an ascetic life regulated by daily rituals and few outings. When his poet friend, Wu Xiqi, visits Luo in 1798, at a shrine off Liulichang Street, he finds the artist sitting on a rush mat worshipping Maitreya. ‘His borrowed clothes were worn out, painting commissions rare.’ Luo’s son, Luo Yunzuan, visits him there and takes him back to Yangzhou where on the third day of the seventh month of the following year Luo passes away.

His remains are interred in the outskirts of Yangzhou. His funeral is attended by thousands of people who revered this giant of individualistic painting. Two artists who knew and loved him paint a portrait of the old man sitting in a monastery holding an amulet, lost in his own world. A moving tribute is added to this last portrait of Luo Ping:

Formally accepted student of Jin Nong;

Chan monk in the Temple of Flowers in a previous life;

A completely original painter of Buddhist figures,

Daoist immortals, the marvelous, and the able;

One who, never muddled, painted with a limpid lucidity,

Who could rarely be persuaded to look at paintings, frequenting poets as a fellow poet.

Before reaching old age, he withered away and died.

Each time I go to Yangzhou, my tears flow all the more.

Luo Ping, Drunken Zhong Kui, ink and color on paper, 1762, Palace Museum, Beijing

Luo Ping leaves a great legacy for other individualistic artists who follow him. He accomplishes something rarely ever seen in Chinese art; images he conceives straight out of his experience with ghosts, reincarnated luohan, dreams, sorrow, and heartbreak.

Luo Ping, Landscapes, Flowers and Birds: Narcissus, ink on paper, 1780, detail, Freer Gallery Of Art, Washington

Luo Ping, Landscapes, Flowers and Birds: Narcissus, ink on paper, 1780, Freer Gallery Of Art, Washington

His paintings range from landscapes, plum blossom, portraits, buildings, and animals; to imaginary creatures from the netherworld, Buddhist luohan, Daoist immortals, the marvelous, and the plain.

All his paintings leave the viewer with a sense of wonder, mystery, and the other-worldly and thankfulness that such a painter has arrived who can bridge the gap between the conscious and unconscious and begin to define a new kind of person in a new kind of reality.

Find out more:

  • Kim Karlsson, Alfreda Murck, Michele Matteini ed., Eccentric Visions: The World of Luo Ping (1733-1799), Museum Reitberg, Zurich, Switzerland, 2009.

Check out “Chinese art” category to find more of Barry’s articles on Chinese artists.

Barry has a range of degrees focusing on Eastern and Western Culture and is a creative writer of novels, short stories and artist profiles. He lives in Kingston, Canada and also resides in Chengdu, China.

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